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Monday, 11 January 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: All-Star Skins Game #ChampionshipSunday
All the money on the line at TSN Pinty's All-Star Skins Game

Ahhh Banff, how I am starting to love you more and more...and growing slightly depressed in realizing I have to leave you soon.  Everyone, from the curlers to the media to the VIP guests, have been commenting on what a perfect scene Banff creates for this unique event.  Huge shout out to all the volunteers as well.  They have been working hard day in and day out with smiles on their faces and welcoming comments.  The success of a top notch event relies on the volunteers putting in tireless hours.  Thank you to each and every one of them!  The fans as well have been amazing.  The curlers commented about the fans numerous times, thanking them for the love of the sport.  The fans were engaging but also showed great sportsmanship all weekend, embracing each of the 8 teams as home town teams and cheering/supporting them through every shot on the ice.  The fan support and passion for the sport truly keeps the sport of curling alive and well.

Now onto the money.....money, money, money!  The semi-finals were fun and exciting but now there is big money on the board.  End skin amounts have been doubled and teams are playing for lots of cash and the title of Skins Game Champion.  

Women's Final

Team Jennifer Jones vs. Team Val Sweeting

The number 2 vs. number 3 teams in the world battling it out for the women's title.  The #BattleInBanff also comes down to a Western Canada provincial rivalry we have seen quite often in curling: Alberta vs. Manitoba.  These are two teams quite familiar to one another...and have quite the recent history.  Rewind your clock to last February in Moose Jaw at the 2015 Scotties Tournament of Hearts.  In a span of 60 hours, they played each other 3 times.  Jones' Manitoba team defeated Sweeting's Alberta team in the final RR game, giving her the top seed in the playoffs.  Later in the day they would battle again in the 1vs2 page playoff game, again won by Jones.  Sweeting would win her SF and set up a third showdown with Jones for the Scotties title.  As we all know, Jones would once again get the best of Sweeting, scoring the winning point with her final draw in 10.  Jones would go 3-0 against Sweeting en route to claiming her 5th Canadian title.  Sweeting must be craving a bit of revenge while Jones, a finalist in the skins game last season, would love to take home the title after missing out last year.

End 1:  Great crowd engagement right off the bat.  The crowd acknowledges some outstanding sweeping by Sweeting team members Lori Olson-Johns and Rachel Brown with a nice "Great Sweeping" comment.  Brown starts throwing off her jacket and mimics throwing it into the crowd, "It's getting warm in here".  Some quick friendly banter back and forth with the crowd is what fans love to see.  With Sweeting sitting the 2 points needed to claim the skin, JJ attempts a draw behind the counting stones but comes up light, leaving Val a throw away to collect the opening skin

Sweeting $2,000 - Jones $0

End 2:  Team Sweeting again showing their love for the crowd.  After a Brown shot comes to a rest, Olson-Johns looks over towards the Pinty's Pub and gives a friendly "Hi husband" comment.  Again, the crowd laughs and enjoys the intimate environment.  Back to the action on the ice.  Both teams have come to play.  We are seeing amazing draws and come around shots just skimming the guards.  Jones vice Kaitlyn Lawes comes up with a huge hit and roll to the back button to sit 2.  With her final stone, Val is forced to play an angle raise on her own in an attempt to steal the skin...no mistake!  #Beauty  Jones needs to try a long angle raise of her own now to try and force the carry over but hits the raised stone too thin.  Steal of the skin of Sweeting.

Sweeting $4,000 - Jones $0

End 3:  Another commercial break, another opportunity for fan engagement.  Both teams take time to pose with fans and snap some pictures.  Team Sweeting even goes out into the stands to snap a few pics with their cheering fans.  As we have seen in the previous two ends, both teams quite comfortable going full offense to score the skin.  Lots of rocks in play once again.  Val makes a great last second call redirecting a stone by Olson-Johns to tick a Jones stone and freeze onto shot stone.  Jones sitting one but could be difficult to score the second point needed for the skins.  Jones comes through with a beauty tick and roll to pick up the skin.  Game on!

Sweeting $4,000 - Jones $3,000

End 4:  More great shot making in this women's final.  Jones second Jill Officer with a beauty double take out to leave Jones sitting 2 early in the end.  Val discussing Olson-Johns' first stone saying she wants "to save it (shot stone) but not for them" even gets a little laugh from Jennifer...standing right behind Val.  Olson-Johns follows suit, coming down with the delicate hit and roll for shot.  Noticing it was a hot shot, Olson-Johns' husband calls out "Hot like you".....got to love the banter going on between the curlers and the fans/family today.  The crowd very appreciative of the high-caliber shot making they are seeing today, applauding both teams and all players for their shots.  With Jones final, she does a light raise on her own stone trying to block off the button.  Val, already sitting 1, has a delicate in-off roll to the button to score the skin but comes up with the nose hit.  We have a carry over.  After 4, team percentages were: Sweeting 84% Jones  82%.  Worth noting Jones herself is only curling 63%. 

Sweeting $4,000 - Jones $3,000

End 5:  After a carryover, we see some big money on the board this end: $7,000.  With Olson-Johns' first, Val is ready to bring the play to the button area.  Three straight draws/freezes to the button leave a crowded button.  Jones sitting 1 but needing to clear up the front of the house littered with her own stones to try and score her two for the skin.  With Jones sitting one, Val on her final stone throws a guard blocking a draw for Jones with her last.  Jones is left with a difficult angle raise on her own stone sitting side 12 foot to score her second point and collect the skin.  What a shot by Jones as she comes close...forcing a measure.  The needle says....only one for Jones and another carryover.

Sweeting $4,000 - Jones $3,000

End 6:  Back to back carryovers brings a HUGE end 6 worth $13,000.  The hammer, and pressure to score two, now shifts over to Sweeting.  As has been the case most ends, both teams fighting to own the control zone in front of the house early on.  Sweeting second Dana Ferguson on fire this end, making back to back perfect runbacks.  Jones sitting with one lonely yellow stone top of the 4 foot surrounded by Sweeting blue.  Olson-Johns makes the solo yellow join the others in the hack with a beauty angle raise takeout.  Lawes follows with a perfect draw to the side of the button, advantage Jones once again.  Olson-Johns is PERFECT with a beauty double raise takeout, eliminating the Jones stone and leaving Sweeting sitting three.  Right after the shot, Olson-Johns' husband yells out "That's my wife" again getting a nice response from the crowd...and Lori!  Jones roars back with a perfect freeze to shot stone.  Everyone is feeling the pressure of this end...big money on the line in a tight contest.  Jones attempts a delicate tap on the counting Sweeting stones but rubs off her own instead.  Val with an open draw to bite the button for the big skin.  Things get tense but Val comes through in the clutch with the draw, the skin and the lead.  Both thirds came to play today, shown by their player percentages after 6: Lori Olson-Johns 96% and Kaitlyn Lawes 94%.

Sweeting $17,000 - Jones $3,000

End 7:  Pivotal end for Jones.  With this skin worth $9,000, she cannot afford to give up any more money to Sweeting or the championship will be out of reach.  With Sweeting sitting shot stone biting the 4 foot, she is trying to protect the counter with some guards.  Lawes attempts the draw around shot stone but instead ticks it and rolls open albeit sitting shot now.  Val makes Team Jones pay for the miss, removing shot stone and rolling behind cover side button to sit 2.  With Jones having only her two stones remaining, she needs to count both if she hopes to grab this skin.  The Olympic champ comes through with a beauty finding a tight port, hitting shot stone and now sitting shot.  Val makes her own beauty with a delicate nose hit however to sit 2.  Jones is forced to a draw full 4 foot for the carry over.  #Clutch with the draw to the button for the carry over.

Sweeting $17,000 - Jones $3,000

End 8:  Here we go....everything on the line in the final end.  The last end of the game will be worth a whopping $22,000 for the skins and an extra $15,000 winners bonus for a total of $37,000!  The energy is becoming more electric in the Fenlands Centre, the crowd knowing everything is coming down to these final 16 stones.  Ferguson makes the big shot to energize the crowd, the runback double removing one Jones stone and pushing the other to a biter at the top side of the house.  Lawes comes through with 2 beauty draws on her shots....Olson-Johns matches with 2 sweet takeouts but unfortunately stuffs the final one and leaving Jones sitting two.  JJ draws top 4 foot with her first, sitting 3 and applying the pressure to Sweeting.  Brown reminds Sweeting and Olson-Johns they have under 90 seconds to play the final two shots...with a slight grimace on her face.  Sweeting makes a nice runback to remove one of Jones stones and open the front of the house.  Game now hinges on JJ attempting to steal or Val forcing this game to a carryover draw to the button for the title and money.  Jones again shows her #CanadaClutch skills with a perfect draw back 8 foot, sitting two.  High stakes, high pressure.  Val needs to draw full 4 foot for the carry over.  Val's draw slides far....off to a measurement for the win.  The measure goes to....Team Jones!  What a game....and a nice comeback win for the defending Scotties champ.

FINAL:  Jones $40,000 - Sweeting $17,000

What a championship final!  Sweeting looked in control of this game from the beginning but could never shake JJ.  Jennifer once again proved why she is still one of the best elite skips in the world, coming through with clutch shots when the pressure was on.  She is unfazed by big pressure moments and seems to shine and excel when her back is up against the wall.  A great final played by both teams.  While both teams may have struggled in their semi-final games, the fans were treated to an A+ quality final.  All 8 athletes on the ice played great.

Congrats to the 2016 TSN Pinty's All-Star Skins Game women's champion: Team Jennifer Jones!  Her combined winnings from the semi-final, final and winner's bonus total $54,000.  Although, aren't you supposed to take the big display cheque with you when you win?

After the post-game celebrations and festivities, I had the chance to talk with Lori Olsen-Johns and Dawn McEwen.  Both interviews will be included in interview blog post coming Monday...stay tuned.  Both were great to talk to and very friendly.  A huge #TwineTime thank you to them both!

The final winnings total for the 4 teams was:

Team Jones - $54,000
Team Sweeting - $31,500
Team Homan - $7,500 (Homan picked up an extra $1,000 for winning the draw to the button)
Team Rocque - $7,000

Men's Final

Team Brad Jacobs vs. Team Brad Gushue

While the women's final featured two teams from Western Canada, tonight we focused on Eastern Canada with our two men's finalist teams. The defending skins game champions vs. the hottest team on tour this season.  2014 Olympic Champ vs. 2006 Olympic Champ.  Brad vs. Brad: The Rivalry Continues!  These teams played an epic 1vs2 page playoff game at the 2015 Tim Horton's Brier in Calgary last March.  As we know, Jacobs scored the victory there advancing to the final while Gushue would suffer a semi-final and bronze medal loss in the span of 36 hours.  I am sure Gushue would love nothing more than to extract some revenge here in Banff and deny Jacobs a repeat title.

End 1: Teams battle to own the control zone to start the match.  Gushue hits the house first, having hammer, but Jacobs follows him in.  The #BattleInBanff is becoming the #BattleForControlZone so far.  Jacobs vice Ryan Fry jams a double runback attempt leaving Goo sitting 2 and in control for the opening skin.  Coming too deep with Gushue vice Mark Nichols last stone leaves Jacobs double takeout to sit shot stone.  Gushue attempts a double of his own but unfortunately jams.  Advantage back to Gushue though?  Jacobs final shot goes deep, back button leaving a possible double for the skin for Gushue.  Gushue hits too thin the top rock and spins too far, leaving only one counter and a carryover.

Jacobs $0 - Gushue $0

End 2:  $4,000 on the line this end with Jacobs having hammer now after the carryover.  #BattleForControlZone takes over once again this end.  Once one team hits the house, strategy shifts to #BattleForTheButton.  Watching the Harnden boys in action sweeping almost makes you break a sweat and get tired.  The energy they put into every shot while sweeping is intense.  I realize this is not a big shock to anyone...but when you see it live, right in front of you....you just have a new appreciation for the strength and power these boys have.  The fans are really into this end, making comments on the shot choice, sweeping, encouraging the players on the ice.  Again, this is what makes this event so unique.  Every fan comment is heard by the players, for the good and the bad perhaps? LOL  Back to the action though...getting easily distracted by the crowd this end.  Gushue makes a nice in-off hit to eliminate one Jacobs stone and push shot stone to the edge of the house, sitting 1.  Nice normal peel removes the Gushue shot stone leaving Jacobs sitting 3.  Gushue has his final stone to try and prevent this skin going to the other Brad.  Gushue's freeze attempt is a bit heavy, bumping off shot stone.  Jacobs makes no mistake and capitalizes...literally...on the advantage with a beauty light tap to score his skin.

Jacobs $4,000 - Gushue $0

End 3:  Brad with the early advantage.  Brad needs to play catch-up.  Oops, I mean advantage Jacobs, Gushue catch-up.  This Brad vs. Brad final means last names only here folks.  Even using initials can sound too similar.  Try it yourself.  Say BJ and BG....as close as you can get.  Ok focus here JR!  You know the drill for the first few stones this end.  But as Fry steps into the hack for his first stone, he comments to the Harnden boys "I don't think our strategy needs to be letting them sit 5 or 4 right now".  Fry calls for the opening up the front of the house #bailout.  A nice runback takeout clears off a guard and moves a Jacobs stone as shot behind cover.  Not a bad result.  Nichols eliminates the stone to sit 2....only to have Fry return the favor with a nice double takeout to sit 1.  We are seeing the power of Jacobs take on the finesse of Gushue this end.  How about this for a twist?  A finesse power takeout?  Yup, must be Nichols!  A beauty triple takeout leaves Gushue sitting two.  Jacobs attempts a double of his own but only eliminates one.  Gushue makes a double of his own, now owning the house sitting 2....exactly what he needs for the skin.  Jacobs draws around a guard and Gushue stone to the back of the 8 foot, barely shot stone.  Still enough to force Gushue to make a play on the stone.  All he needs to do is tap it back and add $3,000 to the Gushue bank account.  Make it money!!

Jacobs $4,000 - Gushue $3,000

End 4:  Another $3K on the board this end, another Brad with hammer.  Little side note comparing the women's final to the men's: the women's teams are way more engaging with the fans.  Both teams talked with fans, laughed with them, took pictures in between ends during the women's game.  We are yet to see any real engagement or laughter from the guys on the ice.  I get being focused on the win...but embrace the unique environment.  Of course...as I am typing this, a great shot is made by EJ Harnden and Gushue looks to the crowd and says, "Such an easy game isn't it?"  He must have known what I was thinking.  And now EJ, after throwing a beauty, looks to the crowd and says "Come on" to encourage them to get into the game more.  I guess I made my comment too soon LOL  Now I could edit it out but that just wouldn't be journalistic integrity would it?  Aaannddd back to the ice we go here.  Gushue sitting one under cover with Fry's final stone to come.  Unfortunately Fry's runback attempt takes out his own stone leaving Gushue now sitting 2.  Pressure on Jacobs facing two Gushue stones and needing to count 2 to collect his skin.  After two perfect Jacobs shots, and a tough miss from Gushue, Jacobs collects his skin and adds to his lead.

Jacobs $7,000 - Gushue $3,000

End 5:  As we kick off end 5, note the high percentages of both teams at the half way point: Jacobs 90% - Gushue 86%.  Both teams are delivering on the ice tonight for this championship final.  The high percentage shot making continues this end with $4,000 on the line and Gushue with hammer.  Both teams showing finesse this end, making the delicate shots look easy.  With "Bam Bam" Nichols in the hack...time for some power....and clean up the front a bit for Gushue.  Bam Bam makes the nice runback to sit 3.  Jacobs trying to readjust the angles with the Gushue stones to make this easier for him but having a tough time.  Gushue, with hammer on Nichols final stone, is actually guarding.  The situation is that nice right now for the boys from The Rock.  But here comes the 2014 champ....a BEAUTY triple raise takeout leaves Jacobs sitting 4.  That is how fast an end can change when you play this Jacobs team.  Gushue answer Jacobs power with finesse.  A perfect in-off his own stone rolls behind cover to sit shot stone.  Jacobs has a pretty simple...well simple for Jacobs....runback to remove the blue Gushue stone.  Gushue is left to draw against 3 for the carryover.

Jacobs $7,000 - Gushue $3,000

End 6:  A crisp $10K on the board this end as a result of the carry over with Team Jacobs having the hammer.  As has been the case every end, guards of each color at the front of the house covering two rocks of each color around the 4 foot.  These are two teams with very similar strategies and strengths.  Are both playing the same game?  Gameplan: Brad squared.  EJ Harnden came to play tonight, making a beauty of an angle raise takeout to eliminate the Gushue shot stone and leave Jacobs sitting 3.  After a few takeout exchanges we have our first crowd sigh of the night.  Nichols attempts a light hit and roll but unfortunately sails through the house with no contact.  #CrowdSigh  Goo comes through in the clutch though with a sweet draw behind everything to hit the side of the button for shot.  Unfortunately this also allows Jacobs to go to his strength: power takeout!  Make no mistake...this is his wheelhouse.  Jacobs sits 4...but only needs 2.  Gushue is forced into a similar shot as his first, a come around draw buried back button to try and stop the bleeding of this end.  Gushue makes the finesse shot....his wheelhouse.  Again, runback takeout for Jacobs to collect his skin.  It isn't an gimme but pretty close given who is in the hack.  But this is why we play the game folks.  Jacobs shot is so precise and strong...it takes out everything, including his rocks.  Luckily he keeps one counting....make it a carryover.  Again.  Gushue team just let out a HUGE sigh of relief.  As we head to the 7th end, Jacobs is curling 90% and Gushue 83%.  Both outstanding numbers...giving #curling fans a real treat tonight.

Jacobs $7,000 - Gushue $3,000

End 7:  The money is piling up...make it $19K on the line.  The game is now on the line.  As a result, this end is essentially worth $34,000!!  Whichever team collects the next skin will be crowned 2015 TSN All-Star Skins Champion.  Gushue has the hammer this time....so advantage to him?  At this point, I am not sure there is any advantage right now.  Going into this pressure-packed end, you have to think Team Jacobs is feeling disappointed letting that last skin slip away.  Team Gushue has to be feeling like they have a new life, a breath of fresh air.  Will the miss last end cause a momentum shift?  See above for how this end starts.  Yellow guard, blue guard, yellow house, blue house....1 rock, 2 rock....red fish, blue fish.  Unfortunately for Gushue, Gallant sails a stone through the house.  We saw one of these last end from Team Gushue and it almost cost them.  Will it happen again?  *don don don*  With Jacobs sitting one back button, Fry plugs up the hole in front.  The control zone is a bit crowded.  Bam Bam...Bam Bam...front of the house cleaned out.  Jacobs is still in guard zone, needing only a steal to defend his title.  Gushue makes a nice runback takeout to remove a Jacobs stone.  Jacobs still sitting one but his lonely blue rock is being shadowed by two yellow stones.  Jacobs final shot is all about trying to make Gushue's final shot the most difficult and avoid giving up the skin here.  He can't be as concerned with the steal now....rather have a carryover at this point.  Jacobs makes his final guard....and pressure on!  Can Gushue tap back his own stone to score his two?  Unfortunately Gushue comes up just shy of scoring his two.....bring on a carryover

Jacobs $7,000 - Gushue $3,000

End 8:  Everything is on the line in this final end.  $47,000 and the title of champion. An accumulation of 4 skins and the winner's bonus.  Jacobs now with the pressure of hammer.  Hammer has not been kind to either team the second half of this game.  This end is all about setting up for the final shot so far.  Both teams playing with angles, finesse shots and trying to set something up.  This truly is a game of inches....but this end may come down to centimeters.  Both teams coming up with nice shots but also near misses to what they want.  Until Fry steps into the hack.  A terrific double takeout eliminates all the Gushue blue and leaves Jacobs sitting 3 top of the house.  Gushue calling on Bam Bam to clear these rocks, asking him to "throw it hard".  Unfortunately Bam Bam has too much power and takes out his guard leaving nothing at the front of the house and Jacobs sitting three at the top of the house.  Fry goes out to the wings to sit 4....full court pressure applied to Gushue now with only skip stones to come.  *phone rings* "Hello Gushue, fate is calling" and Gushue answers with a stunning triple take out leaving his shooter in the rings for shot stone.  Jacobs eliminates the Gushue stone and it all comes down to this.  Gushue needs the double take out to stay in the match.  If he cannot remove both Jacobs stones, Jacobs will have an open draw to the house for the win.  #drama #pressure  Here we go!!  What an attempt from Gushue has he comes sooooo close but cannot push out both Jacobs stones.  As he walks back to the house, he raises his hand in appreciation for the fans cheering him on....everyone knowing Jacobs is about to win this game.  Sure enough, Jacobs with the perfect hit and stick to claim the title.

Jacobs $54,000 - Gushue $3,000

Congratulations to Team Brad Jacobs for their outstanding curling all weekend and for defending their TSN Pinty's All-Star Curling Skins Game title.  It is not easy to defend this championship but Jacobs pulled through and is now a 2-time skins champ.  The final cheque of $71,000 (adding in their $17,000 semi-final winnings) is very impressive!

After the celebrations I was fortunate enough to talk with Mark Nichols and Ryan Fry.  Both were very friendly and offered up some great insight into the game, the event and looking ahead towards provincial playdowns.  Overall, I interviewed 7 Olympic champions this weekend.  I also had a great surprise interview after the event ended...stay tuned for the Sounds from Banff blog post coming out shortly.  Any guesses on who the surprise guest was?

The final winnings total for all 4 men's teams shaked up like this:

Team Jacobs - $71,000
Team Gushue - $22,000
Team McEwen - $5,000 (McEwen picked up an extra $1,000 for winning the draw to the button)
Team Simmons - $2,000

And with that, the 2016 skins event comes to a close.  Hopefully you saw pictures, whether on this blog or live television, of how stunning of a venue The Fenlands plays as host of this event.  But, like any event, as fast as they make it beautiful, you need to be equally as fast at taking it all down.  Just look at the pic below I snapped as I was saying goodbye.

Special thank you to the Town of Banff, the Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, the Rimrock Resort Hotel and the countless number of staff and volunteers I encountered throughout the weekend.  All of you were nothing short of kind, courteous and helpful.  You truly helped make this an unforgettable experience.

And last, but certainly not least, HUGE thank you to TSN.  This is a marquee event on the curling calendar every year and I felt truly honored to just be a small part of it this year.  The entire staff of TSN who I had the pleasure to meet or talk to were nothing short of hospitable and friendly.  They made a small blogger feel like he was a part of the big action.  Renee, your kindness and caring attitude throughout the weekend will never be forgotten.  You embraced a blogger as a member of #TeamMedia the entire weekend and treated me with the equal care and respect you would with any other media personality.  Thank you Renee!

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